A new court decision brings to an end six years of legal wrangling over the shooting death of Pastor Fred Winters, who was killed by a schizophrenic man in 2009 while giving a sermon at First Baptist Church in Maryville.
Terry Sedlacek has been found not guilty by reason of insanity six years after he shot Winters dead during services before the eyes of the First Baptist congregation. On March 8, 2009, the young man walked into the sanctuary during Winters’ sermon and fired a .45 handgun at the pastor, striking him once in the chest — and in the Bible he carried.
Several parishioners attempted to intervene, but Sedlacek was also armed with a knife. He stabbed church members Terry Bullard and Keith Melton before stabbing himself in the throat.
It is not believed that Sedlacek and Winters had ever met or been in contact with each other before the murder. Sedlacek, who was then a 27-year-old man living in nearby Troy, did not belong to First Baptist Church.
Winters was declared dead at the scene. The two parishioners and Sedlacek recovered from their injuries. Sedlacek was briefly incarcerated at the Madison County Jail before being sent to Chester Mental Health Center.
Court proceedings over the last six years have been marked by debates about Sedlacek’s mental state at the time and his extensive history of mental illness. He has been evaluated at both the Chester facility and the Alton Mental Health Center, in addition to assessments by experts hired by the Madison County Circuit Court, the state’s attorney’s office, the public defenders’ office and others.
“In looking at his medical records, what I saw was a person who had schizophrenia and was on a downhill slide,” said John Rekowski, Sedlacek’s attorney.
Schizophrenia typically presents in the late teens and worsens in the 20s and early 30s. Rekowski said Sedlacek’s case appeared when he was 18 and was exacerbated by a case of Lyme disease acquired from a tick bite. The Lyme disease did not cause Sedlacek’s mental illness, Rekowski said, but it “seemed to exacerbate the situation.
“He was ill at the time, and he’s ill now,” Rekowski said, acknowledging the insanity defense is fairly rare outside of television shows. “This is not some lawyer trick. This is a very sick man.”
The Sedlacek family is relieved the case is over, Rekowski said, and they would decline further comment.
He said the family had done a great deal to try to help Sedlacek before that day in 2009.
“This was not a family who ignored the problem,” Rekowski said. “They had specialists around the nation trying to help his schizophrenia; they dealt with it on a daily basis.”
Rekowski said he believes the court made the right decision, based on the medical evidence. “The man should be in a mental institution in a secure situation.”
The prosecutor’s expert was Dr. Mathew Markos, director of forensic clinical services for Cook County’s circuit court. The conclusion drawn by the experts was a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a continued decline in mental health despite ongoing treatment in his incarceration.
Reports and testimony offered at previous hearings stated that even with large dosages of anti-psychotic medication, Sedlacek was observed making loud grunting noises with his arms held out and shaking his head from side to side. He was seen talking and laughing loudly with no one present and was subject to auditory hallucinations. He had trouble tolerating lengthy conversations, and in December 2011, his caregivers reported he was howling, growling, barking and making strange noises in his room.
Madison County Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli entered the order at a brief hearing Thursday declaring that Sedlacek is not guilty by reason of insanity. He had been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery.
Winters’ window, Cindy Winters, was present at the hearing. She issued a public statement, but declined further comment and asked that the family’s privacy be respected. “In situations such as ours, there isn’t an outcome in which one side wins and the other loses, for really we have all lost,” Winters wrote. “Having caring individuals around us has made all the difference during our time of loss and we cannot say ‘thank you’ enough.”
She asked for prayers for both families as they continue to heal.
The other two victims in the case could not be reached for comment.
Gibbons called it a “tragic and sad case” for all who knew Winters. “Cindy has handled all of this with such grace and dignity,” Gibbons said. “I hope that this provides some peace for Cindy and her daughters and everyone harmed by this terrible and tragic event.”
Sedlacek was not present at the hearing Thursday and will remain in confinement at the Alton Mental Health Center. Any attempt to be released from the facility would require prior approval from a judge, with input from the state’s attorney’s office and the Winters family, under the Victims’ Bill of Rights.
However, Rekowski said it is unlikely. “I think it is pretty doubtful that Terry would ever be restored to sanity or fitness,” he said. “This case is a tragedy on so many levels. There’s no winners in this case.”
The murder briefly made national news, with much attention on the random nature of Sedlacek’s violence. The funeral was protested by the Westboro Baptist Church, who in turn faced counter-protests by local organizations.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.